Was it intentional that yesterday, with the growing stack of hand-scrawled note paper tucked into the back pocket of my bag and the deadline for their neatly typed untanglement gnawing at my mind, that the Residency schedule handed me first a lecture on breath in writing and then a seminar on meditation and chant? Yesterday, Day 7, was a gift of non-linearity.
In both classes yesterday morning, I planted my feet firmly on the ground, shifted my spine upright and away from the chair back, closed my eyes and breathed long and slow. The second seminar, led by one of the writing mentors who is also a Kundalini yoga teacher, was a solid two hours of kirtan dance, kundalini chant, pranayama and mantra. Not counting the Metallica I blasted down the 405 on Saturday, it was the first time I'd heard music all week. I closed my eyes and let the rhythm and song sway my bones that have been folded into right angles. We chanted Ong Namo, Guru Dev Namo, and the tight lines of sentence and story structure slackened into ribbons and streams. Afterwards, in a fevered rush to write faster than our minds could race, we pushed our pens across the page without agenda, prompted by "Disco" and "Zebra", unleashed by the meditation and chant that came before, and fell into uncharted territory, pulling from hidden nooks of memory and desire. It was like rolling down a grassy hill, laughing and falling into a pile of daisies at the end. It was like eating ice cream before there was any mind chatter about calories and clothes. It was like playing music when the notes just sail from the horn. It was like riding a bicycle home.
Later, while standing on line for a salad at the little shop across the way, a classmate said to me, "You sounded like the ocean." I told her about ujjayi pranayama, victorious breath. I asked her about the little aluminum-backed book in her purse, and she showed me her bible, all dogeared and doodled with colored pencil. She told me how in love she is with Jesus, how he has saved her and loves her. I told her about Rumi and Hafiz, and how they felt the same way. We ate our lunches together and spoke with open-hearts about life and spirituality, without fear of difference or coldness of ego.
I got home late last night, but Darby and the girls did too. It was a lively house at ten. Emerson was still dancing because her holiday choir concert had just ended and she was wired and hungry and happy. Esme was dancing because Emerson was dancing. Darby was happy because his girls were happy.
I was, of course, exhausted. I've finally succumbed entirely to the cold that has been threatening to settle in my lungs. The cough has deepened, the sneezes sudden and loud, my voice barely over a whisper at the end of the day. But, the girls were wired and giggling, and they would not let me crawl into bed. They flung the covers off me, yanked at my arms, tickled my feet, pushed and pulled and twisted me in knots, until I finally surrendered to their love and threats, crawled up with them to the birdsnest and tucked them into bed.
Last night I slept for the first time since last Thursday. I laid on my belly, pushed away the pillows, and didn't move for hours. In the morning, just before the alarms sounded, Darby lay next to me, listening to my sleep. He watches over me, I know, sends me love in those quiet hours when I'm still deep in dream.
Was it the breath or the chant? The meditation or the music? Maybe it was the fierce love and laughter that tugged at my weary limbs, and pulled me despite my protests, out of story structure and back into the home I adore and the family I love.
It's a strange thing to leave the comfort of a perfect life to reach into unknown territory for unknown riches. It's a beautiful thing when the perfect life pulls you back in from the abyss. Sometimes it tickles you halfway to death, and then insists that you kiss it goodnight. Jesus, Darby, Kundalini chant, girls, music... whatever it is that gives you the love you need at the moment you most need it is perfect, perfect, perfect.
In my yoga classes, sometimes I will ask my students to hold a pose beyond a few breaths, beyond the point of comfort, beyond the point of interest, and ask them to explore their experience. If it's pain, I tell them, move out. But if it's merely sensation, even if the sensation is not pleasant, I ask them to stay. It is so tempting to break a pose under the guise of thirst, reaching for the water bottle with relief, not because of the water, but the escape. However, the discomfort can be interesting. It can reveal a physical imbalance in our body -- oh, this hip, oh, this quad -- and it can reveal a psychological crutch. How many times do we shift prematurely out of a relationship or a situation simply to avoid dealing with discomfort? What revelations do we miss when we shift too soon? Or reach for the closest distraction? What at point do we stagnate in our personal evolution because of an aversion to difficult sensation?
Yesterday I met with my mentor. I took the elevator to his office on the second floor, and as I moved to step into the hall, he stepped into the elevator and pressed the button to go down. Perhaps this was a sign that we might experience mixed messages in our mentor-mentee relationship these coming months. I rode the elevator back down and filled the coffee I had just topped off, and then went with him back up to the second floor.
When we finally settled into his office to discuss my goals for this Project Period, he suggested that "we" might need to break the songwriter in me. He's read an excerpt of my story about a night I spent in Texas while on tour. "Tumbleweeds," he said. "It's like a country song."
I was up all night thinking about tumbleweeds. Literally, I did not sleep. The damn things mingled with my muffled coughs as I tried not to wake Darby. Which states have tumbleweeds, I thought. What songs? By morning I had concluded that of course tumbleweeds make an appearance in my story. I was in Texas for a week, west Texas for two days. The story is about one of those nights. I'd never seen a tumbleweed in my life until those stops on the tour. They were fascinating, but even more importantly, they were everywhere. I write about setting, and every long stretch of road was bordered by the dry globes of loose stems. One stormy night, the last time I traveled those roads, my hands gripped the wheel as I dodged them with every gust. Actually, come to think of it, the song I wrote about the same night doesn't mention tumbleweeds at all.
My mentor lives in Vermont. Has he raced the wind and rain and rolling weeds? It doesn't take a songwriter or a country song to write about nature, and in west Texas in the second half of summer, nature was rolling.
As I drove to campus this morning, those tumbleweeds kept spinning in my head. I tend to sell myself short. While I don't want to inflate my writing experience, perhaps I undersold it. Did I somehow imply to my mentor that I have only written that one story? Did I come across as a songwriter exploring longer form for the first time? My resume is not lengthy, but did I do a disservice by neglecting to mention these past five or seven years of blogging? Is it relevant to mention the published essays? Does it matter that I teach writing/yoga workshops? In my interest of exploring "voice" did I give him the impression that I haven't developed my own?
And under all these questions, deep in the discomfort, I am crying out No. Do not break the songwriter. I still feel that in the world of songs, I have only just begun.
So, enter the discomfort. I have been shaking for days, every morning trying not to spill my coffee as I write these posts. So this is me, exploring. Open to discussing. Breathing.
Yesterday was day five of this ten-day residency. About mid-afternoon I hit a wall of supreme fatigue in which I was able to fully function except under one circumstance. When a classmate or teacher asked me the question "How are you?" I was confronted with such a complicated internal survey coupled with the request to externalize the discovered sensations and thoughts, I could only answer, "Exhausted." After several hours of this, the awareness that the question was simply one of nicety and greeting settled upon me, and I was able to muster smiles and variations like, "Good" and "How'd you like XYC seminar?" and "Are you happy with your mentor selection?".
As it turns out, almost everyone I've seen is happy with their mentor selection. With one exception in my posse of first-semesters, there's an infusion of excitement and optimism about the coming Project Period. I am certainly electrified. After five days of seminars in these rooms and walls, I am curious about the next phase of work. Once these ten days are over and we all head back into our normal lives of day jobs, yoga teaching, and family, my mentor and the four other students in my mentor-group will be my crew.
My mentor for this Project Period is the same teacher/writer I have for this Residency's Genre Writing Workshop. Coincidentally, two of the four in my mentor-group are also in my GWW. For the first five months of 2014 we'll be peas in pod. Each month we will participate in ten- to fourteen-day online discussions about our group-chosen books. Every Sunday we will have a friendly check-in with each other just to see how the writing is going and what, if any, frustrations are arising. In addition, in these five months we each will read another five or ten books chosen with the guidance of our mentor based on our personal writing and literary goals, and submit paragraph- to five-page annotations on a monthly basis of anything we read. Finally, we will each work on our individual writing projects and submit to our mentor via snail mail up to twenty pages by the last Friday of each month.
I have a one-on-one meeting with my mentor in an hour, and it is in that meeting that we will determine which books I will read this spring. Meanwhile, the books I will read with my group are:
Here is Where We Meet, John Berger
Plainwater, Ann Carson
The Periodic Table, Primo Levi
Moby Dick, Herman Melville
To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
Sad to say, I never did read those last two in high school, so I'm happy to dig into them now. It is mind-boggling how many classics I've taken up on my own in the years since high school, to make up for holes in my education. What did we spend our time (and tax payers money) on back then? All I recall is Dicken's Great Expectations, Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, Romeo and Juliet, and, when I moved to rural Florida in twelfth grade, the Bible.
Despite my exhaustion, yesterday ended magnificently. I didn't want to leave the school, could have sat in the seminar room for another two hours. This is the power of story. Most days end with a Reading, usually with three student readers followed by a faculty or guest reader. I truly enjoyed all three students yesterday, but what glued my entire attention was faculty writer Hope Edelman's reading of an almost-finished essay she has been working on. It was a riveting piece of personal memoir/investigative journalism about the military toxic waste dump that formed the foundation below her elementary school and childhood neighborhood. By the time the reading officially ended she was only mid-way through her tale. Last night I was tied, tethered to every word, reeling with each new revelation of her investigation and the unfolding of her childhood memories.
This, this, this. Yes, yes, yes. This is why I am here, now. To learn, to explore, to figure out how to stitch together narratives that engulf, capture, and eliminate exhaustion, hunger, and desire. To dissolve the future and the past and anything outside of the very moment in the story. To vanish everything in the world save the next word.
"For women, it's really about do it all, do it perfectly and make sure you make it look effortless." - Brene Brown in her interview with Krista Tippett on NPR's show "On Being"
I've purposely avoided blogging about the academic side of my MFA experience. There's time for that later, if necessary, and in any case, part of my required residency work is to submit reactions/analysis of the seminars/workshops/etc. Actually, I didn't intend to necessarily blog about this residency at all. Sometimes there's no plan. Sometimes I just need to write.
Flipping through the radio stations on my way home from the Reading last night, I happened upon Krista Tippett's interview with Brene Brown on NPR's "On Being". If you haven't already caught Brown's Ted talks on Shame and Vulnerability, I highly recommend them. It feels synchronistic to have ended up in the middle of her interview last night after a difficult afternoon at school. Without realizing it, Brene Brown was exactly what I needed.
Our capacity for wholeheartedness, she says, can never be greater than our willingness to be brokenhearted. In other words, in order to experience and express our full capacity as humans (and artists), we need to entirely let go of expectation, of comparison, of perfectionism. In fact, Brown created two lists in her research on shame and worthiness and found that productivity, busyness, exhaustion, and perfectionism are incompatible with wholehearted creation and authentic joy.
Yesterday was a tough one. The first thing scheduled was a Meet the Mentors panel, in which the students had an opportunity to ask questions and get to know the working style and expectations of the mentors in the Creative NonFiction track. Afterwards, we were expected to rank in order our mentor preference and submit our list by 9 a..m. today. Although I intended, as a first semester student, to raise my hands in surrender and simply request that the committee place me where they saw fit, I left the panel presentation feeling dejected. I have fifty or sixty pages of a manuscript and many questions about how to proceed, yet it appears as though none of the mentors are willing or able to read more than twenty pages per student per month.
As I wandered out of the seminar room I felt genuinely lost. I need guidance, I felt, and was concerned that none of the mentors would be able to provide answers to my questions. Figuring the exhaustion and lack of exercise was contributing to my mood, I headed to my car to switch into walking shoes with the intention of wandering in the cemetery for a while between workshops. On my way off campus, though, I veered back into the main building, up to the fifth floor, and into the faculty offices.
"I don't know where to go with this story. How do I find the guidance I need?" I asked one of the core faculty members.
"Put your fifty or sixty pages in a drawer", she told me.
In other words, just start writing from here, from a different place. Don't worry about what I've already done, she advised. Just write the new pages, and in the process of exploring and working with the mentor I will eventually know when the time is right to take out the old pages. I'll know what to do with them then. Release my expectations and my need for perfection. No mentor can tell me the answers.
It's strange, but sometimes the same advice we've heard before suddenly takes on new meaning. Where in the past it would have been frustrating, now it sounds perfect. I need to release who I was as a writer, the control I've exercised on these pages so far, and step out into the void of unknowing, be vulnerable, surrender entirely. Do these thoughts this morning make any sense? I don't know. Here I am, five minutes to nine, releasing control of this morning's blog. It's time for class.
After several mornings of get-up-and-go it seems I can't sleep past six, so I am here in bed on a Sunday morning listening to the airplanes overhead. I'll head back to Antioch in a few hours, missing the day's graduate presentations but in time for the Meet the Mentors panel. Despite my later start time today, with the core faculty's first night advice to honor our body/mind/spirit needs, last night I begged out early. Yesterday I had arrived on campus shortly before 8 a.m. for a long day of back-to-back Presentations, Lectures, Orientations, Readings, and Info sessions, and by the time I got my first ten minute break it was already 4 p.m. After the final class of library system orientation (aside: This national inter-library system will deliver books/dissertations/essays to my door. It's like Netflix for books. Brilliant!), I could feel my eyes rolling sleepily in their sockets and my blood sugar was on the floor. I skipped the night's Reading* and called Darby on the ride home to keep me awake at the wheel. It was only 5:30 p.m. but I was ravenous and ready to drop from fatigue.
(*Reading: to distinguish a live performance from a solo sit-down with a book, I'll capitalize the former.)
As I lay here this morning listening to Darby still sleeping beside me and the planes occasionally passing above, I've been thinking about my new community of Antioch writers. When I imagine what the general public might picture writers to be, I conjure a group of milquetoast individuals, quietly reading their books and bickering about grammar. The truth is, I am in mouth-gaping awe of these people. I am floored by the unwillingness to be swayed by anything short of Truth. They argue and question and write, write, write until they get past the false fronts. I am inspired by the unwavering quest to dig beyond the easy, past the cliche, despite the pleading of their family or the mask of social history. I don't know if there is a more courageous set than writers. Writers are true warriors who look at the world closely, behind the curtain, under the bed, out the window, always with eyes wide open to the external world, questioning their interior experience, self aware and willing to dismantle social conventions, unravel invisible passions, dig into sometimes painful and particular personal events in order to connect and uncover universal truths. Is there anything more innocent than a page? And yet on that innocuous slate, writers stab, cut, carve, and bleed, fighting with every word for the essence of Honesty and Truth.
I have found a bagel and the library and 53 minutes in which to reflect on yesterday's events before jumping into today's. I am awhirl with three strains of thoughts.
First, of course, there is the academic strain. Yesterday was an information dump. I attended orientations for the paperwork we're required to file which will track our activity and progress throughout the four (or five) (or six) semesters, the computer system which functions as the virtual gathering space and discussion platform during the five month project period that follows every ten-day residency, and the genre writing workshop in which seven of us (plus the teacher) will meet three more times over the next week to discuss the 20-page writing samples we submitted two months ago. In the morning I attended my first seminar (Reading Like a Writer -- based on the Francine Prose book of the same title), and in the evening my first student and faculty reading (a combination of poetry, writing for young people, and a work of fiction with a lengthy and detailed sex scene).
In between these academic events were social gatherings. There was the Buddy lunch, where I had the opportunity to connect with a writer who is further along in her MFA studies, also in the Creative Nonfiction track. It seems impossible that our match was random -- she too is a chef, a runner, a yogi, and her daughter rides horses -- yet she assured me that the program truly doesn't attempt to match buddy interests. Later, there was the Tostado dinner where some first-semester students and I had time to connect. I feel that we are creating a little community here. There is the housewife with the Harvard Law degree, the mother of six who recently left the Mormon church, the Jewish math teacher whose husband is also a recovered Mormon, and the other Jewish woman whose marriage to a Latino man is not recognized outside of West Hollywood. There is the recent college graduate with the fresh face and long blond hair who thinks her interest in writing about the darker side of life might be a result of her Las Vegas upbringing. There is the woman who moved to the States from Belarus six years ago and has mastered English enough to be in this masters program, and the other woman who speaks Russian, Armenian, and Hebrew.
And then there is the last thought that has been spinning around in my head: the one about fate and coincidence, that wonders at the oddity that six years ago I visited this very building, this corporate campus with the parking garage, to pick up my then-husband who worked for a company whose offices were housed in this very complex. Driving the roads to get from my life with Darby and the girls in our sweet house in the Valley to the Antioch campus, I've been crossing through the Mid-City neighborhood where I last lived with my ex, where I deepened my yoga practice and engaged in creative endeavors that had no career objective, where I unraveled the inauthentic life that I had been living, where I awakened in the pages of my journal and in long moments of silence, where I faced fears of loneliness and lost dreams, and finally, through clenched belly and tear-stained cheeks found the courage to leave that inauthentic life I had created out of blind, grasping fear, scrape down to the very bedrock of my soul, and begin the long, beautiful process of building the life that truly inspires me to live.
The alarm rang too early. Despite falling behind and entirely forgetting to make the final dinner for the yoga retreat, in record time I got five pots of water boiling, found a container of fettucini, some trail mix to sprinkle on a green salad, and foraged tomatoes from various corners of the kitchen for a sauce. All this despite the meddling hands of kindhearted (but hungry) yogis. When the alarm rang too early, I had almost conquered my dream.
Last night was the start of the MFA program. I was nervocited (Esme's word) all day at the office. By the time I got through the evening orientation, the cocktail hour at a nearby hotel, and then up the 405 back to the Valley, I was beat with shaky energy. Like a steaming teapot spout, I spewed everything out to Darby that I could remember of the day, and then fell into a fitful sleep of lumpy pillows, boney shoulders, cramped feet, and forgotten yoga retreat meals. And at 6:00 a.m. the alarm.
But, despite it all -- meaning, despite myself -- I am optimistic. I am hesitantly encouraged by the tone of last night's orientation. We are to have mentors, the presenting faculty said, and if we don't know what questions to ask, the mentors, we are told, will help us to find direction. We are to have different mentors every semester. This is to ensure that we are nurtured into becoming our own artist, not a mini version of any particular writer. Each of us has a unique gift to offer, and having a variety of mentors, they tell us, will help us discern what advice/guidance we need to develop our own voice. And during this intense ten-day residency, they tell us, we should call home, we should eat well, we should get exercise, take time for ourselves, journal, meditate, skip seminars, be a whole, healthy person.
All this information -- the reason for different mentors, the urging to take walks -- made little fireworks go off in different places of my psyche. At Berklee where I studied music ten years ago, the modus operandi was completely the opposite: Sacrifice for your art. Run yourself ragged. Two to six a.m. recording sessions, grab a disco nap, and then back to class at nine. Perform and record as much as possible, help out your fellow students on their projects, smoke cigarettes to break up the sessions, drink coffee to stay awake, eat donuts when you're hungry. And on the academic front, write hit songs according to the usual formula: V C V C B C. Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, and Phil Ochs had no place in the noisy practice room halls of Berklee College of Music.
Berklee was a grand experience. I don't regret it for a minute, but it took years after graduating to settle into a healthy balance. Antioch is showing different colors. Holistic, integrated colors. Colors that meld with the painting of my current life, guided by balance and physical health, sunshine, and joy. As I write this morning, I am eating fruit from the platters they set out in the student lounge. First seminar -- Reading Like a Writer -- begins in twelve minutes. Onward to Day 2.
I'm thankful for my swim lessons earlier this year. They taught me how to breathe while in over my head and overwhelmed with sensation -- and how not to drown. This summer, the metaphor of breathing, learning how staying afloat, and understanding when to open my mouth or keep it closed helped me immensely during the most challenging moments of my stepparenting life so far. The lessons I learned in the pool were invaluable in my home, and in helping me to soften into the turbulence of teenage-hood in a blended family. The child who once laughed and loved me easily is growing, testing, changing. She is a glorious being and I am endlessly honored to be one of her parents, but being a stepparent is an interesting role. Sometimes we have it easier than anyone, but many times it's the most thankless role there is. Every Saturday when I returned to the pool, the lessons I learned there solidified. How do you go with the flow when the swimmer in the next lane is doing butterfly laps and churning up whitewater? You learn when to open your mouth, and when to keep it closed.
Now, on the cusp of a new adventure -- this week I begin the course work for my MFA in Creative Writing -- I am again thinking of the pool. I am thinking of the fear I had the first time I jumped in, of the self-consciousness I felt floundering in my beginning strokes, the fatigue that each session wrought in my limbs, the strangeness of showering and undressing in the locker room.
The 10-day residency that marks the official beginning of my work begins tomorrow at 6 p.m. I have been reading like a fiend, trying to get through the required reading and pre-residency assignments, but I have also been taking conscious time with Darby and the girls. Even as I type here, there is an unfinished game of Shrek Monopoly precariously open on the coffee table, inviting the pounce of little paw feet. I have a date with the family to finish this game tonight right after work, and hopefully the cat will not disrupt the properties. Over the next ten days I will miss bedtime stories, choir concerts, and acting class demonstrations. I will miss dinners and early morning dream-swaps with Darby.
Oh, but what will I gain? That is a mystery that is only beginning to unfold.
Meanwhile, since this is what I have been doing lately, I thought I would share with you some of the books I have been reading. Perhaps, if you have just finished your latest novel and are without another on the nightstand, you will be interested to try one of these. Never fear, my copies will be back at the library shortly.
This one -- The Awakening by Kate Chopin -- was one I have been intending to read for years. My singer/songwriter friend Rebecca Loebe
claimed it was her favorite, and urged me to read it during our Berklee days. Later she later wrote a lovely, moody song titled "The Awakening by Kate Chopin" so you can probably guess this was my soundtrack through the week of reading. (Listen to the song here
. Buy it here
-- support indie artists!).
I think ideally I would write a blurb about each book I list, and this is something I may do in the future, but for now I have more writing/reading to finish before class tomorrow night. For now I will leave you with images, and the urge to read books.
Naturally, after years of northeast city living, I walk fast. Last night, soaked from head to foot after a spin class, I slowed my pace. My car (utilitarian, dirty) was in a lot (street level, gated, manned), same place I parked for Monday's class. I noticed the unusually warm November air, and the pitch black sky (no stars, no moon), and the lights ablaze on the backside of a three-story concrete apartment building at the far side of the lot. It's common knowledge that to be a writer one needs to slow down and notice things.
My new book bag arrived in the mail yesterday. Last night after spin, not exactly at their request, I gave Darby and the girls individualized tours of the (let's count together) sixteen (or did we miss one?) pockets. There are pockets within pockets and it gets very confusing, but the most important thing is that there's space for my (printed out, three-hole-punched, three-ring-bindered) reading materials and (new) laptop. In addition to the bag and the laptop, a few weeks ago I went to the eye doctor for the first time in six years and am now wearing new glasses (Prada like the devil). Also, I have more student loan debt. Apparently I am going back to school.
Do I look smarter?
Am I more organized?
Will my new bag and laptop and everything make me focused, disciplined, witty, and desirable in smart, creative, insightful ways?
Dammit, will these new specs and my sixteen (or seventeen) pocket book bag help me achieve all my professional, creative, and life desires, which include a charming, perfectly-sized house in a small town with agreeable weather (some rain, plenty of sun, cool enough for layers, warm enough for bare feet), beloved students and colleagues, published books and essays, and plenty of time with Darby to explore exotic and familiar places where we can be both adventurous and lazy?
Ah, welcome, mind-chatter. Of course. Have a seat, set up shop. Like my new book bag, there are pockets within pockets, and there's always room for more worried inner-dialog. One thing my mind chatter does not refute is that I am an attentive listener.
One of my past writing teachers always insisted on grounding details right from the start. Let the reader know who, what, where, when, and how, she would urge, but look at me here. Even with the MFA acceptance letter, new glasses, and book bag, I cannot hide from the fact that I will fail. I have already forgotten the grounding details.
Who: Yours truly, the timid and fierce dreamer in residence.
What: MFA in Creative Writing with a focus on Creative Non-Fiction (but explorations and possible semester in Fiction). Low Residency program.
Where: Antioch University Los Angeles.
When: Beginning in a few weeks on Thursday December 5 at 6:00 p.m.
How: With a good amount of anguish, I suppose.
The low residency format of this MFA means I will be on campus for ten days each semester, for four or five semesters. Ten days on campus attending workshops and seminars, followed by five months of 'project period' in which I will write and submit, among other things, twenty pages monthly to my mentor. In preparation for one of the upcoming December residency seminars, I re-read a passage in Anne Lamott's book Bird By Bird. In her chapter titled The Moral Point of View she writes,"The core, ethical concepts in which you most passionately believe... telling these truths is your job."
Sorry about the profanity, but Dammit, Jim. What are the core, ethical concepts in which I most passionately believe? Lamott is not asking for a superficial answer about what I like, or to what I am agreeable, but that which I most passionately believe. She writes later, "Reality is unforgivingly complex." Hell right it is. Is there a closet to hide in, because this stuff is pretty intense. How do you unravel your passions enough to get at Truth, with a capital T? Can I not just live in keeping with my values, hopefully bring that to my yoga students and my kidlets? Doesn't she know that the Prada glasses are just a ruse?
Apparently not. Lamott is saying Arielle, dear timid and fierce dreamer in residence, you can quietly live whatever life you want, but if you are going to write about it, you need to step up to the plate. And, by the way, you're the one who put the application in the mail to Antioch, with an excerpt from the book you are writing about the time you toured the country for five months with your band. You went to one of the top music schools in the country despite unholy cries from your nuclear family about how you cannot and should not pursue the life of an artist. YOU HAVE DISMANTLED YOUR LIFE EVERY TIME YOU FOUND IT WAS INAUTHENTIC AND REBUILT THE FOUNDATION FROM SCRATCH.
Yeah, Ms. Lamott. I guess stepping up to plate is kinda my modus operandi anyway. I just wish I could do it with a little less commentary from the inner critic peanut gallery.
In the shower this morning, I held the bar of lavender soap and closed my eyes, trying to find the words to describe the sensation in my hands. No words came, so I simply washed my face. I pressed my fingers against my closed eyelids till sparks of color and geometric lines lit up against the darkness. How would I describe this? I thought, and wondered if it looks the same to everyone. Again, no words.
It's one thing to slow down and notice. It's entirely another thing to have the skills of phrase. Language art. And then, beyond that, to actually say something of substance. Express that which I most passionately believe. Perhaps this MFA is just an expensive way to confirm that you are not gifted in this realm, says my inner voice.
Given this lifetime of dialog between us, I'm thinking I should consider giving my inner voice a name. Like Syd or Pup or Marcia. Yes, Syd, perhaps this MFA is just an expensive foray into failure. Meanwhile, Syd, it's still morning. I've got my coffee to drink, and if you don't mind sitting over there quietly for a while, I will journal for a page or two to clear my mind, and then I intend to sit here at my new laptop for a bit. After all, if you're done talking, I'm in for another day of writing.
The other day, while running errands and thinking of Lovember, I passed Vendome
, a local wine and liquor shop. Vendome is a few blocks from my house and I drive by every time I head to Trader Joe's, but I've only stopped in once or twice. This shop is interesting because set up inside is a little grass-roofed wine bar. Call me sheltered, but I have never seen another liquor store with a tasting room. I'm not a wine connoisseur - far from it - and have been curious to try out some tastings. As I drove by, I took note of the tasting hours.
Did I explain Lovember? I'm courting my man. Lovember is my dedication this month to take things more slowly. Savor time. Be more mindful in some areas of my life. Lend attention to my love for Darby. Like so many things, if a relationship is to flourish, it must be nurtured. Darby, his love for me, and our relationship together are some of the greatest gifts of my lifetime. Thankfully, I appreciate what I have while I have it, but to paraphrase Hafiz, the one regret I do not want to have when I get to the end of my life is that I did not kiss my sweet man enough. We've had a busy few months. Now that we're in the savoring, slower, mindful month of Lovember, what better time for a wine tasting? On Sunday, I asked Darby out on a date. We were the first ones to arrive for the tasting that evening, so for a while we had Smiley, Vendome's Sunday wine enthusiast, to ourselves. He put Miles Davis on the stereo, and as he poured told us stories about his life. Sip, talk, sip, talk. We were having a marvelous time, but I won't bore you with a play-by-play. Actually, after trying eight or ten wines, I don't know if I could. However, I do remember one moment in particular. Darby and I were sitting back, tasting the best Rhone of the evening
. We were deep into Kind Of Blue. I eavesdropped on Smiley and some of the other tasters discussing Panama hats. Is there a word for the appreciation of being able to appreciate something?
I bet the French, a culture so steeped in wine, have a word for this. Miles Davis on the speakers, good wine, listening to Smiley's stories and having no need to tell my own.... In my younger days I don't think it would have felt poignant, but lately everything shows its layers, complex and beautiful. If youth is a smile, adulthood is the laugh lines that reveal a person's history. Another regret I do not want to have when I get to the end of my life is that I didn't smile enough. Perhaps it's from the slowing down of Lovember. Lately I have been rejoicing in time.
Recently, Darby and I sat together enjoying a rare Saturday moment when both kids were settled in with friends and didn't need to be picked up for another hour. The conversation paused for a breath.
"Do you know how beautiful you are?" he said, looking at me from across the table.
When Darby tells me I'm beautiful, I listen. I take it in when he compliments me. I press his words into my being like leaves between the pages of a book. I want to hold them for later, but I also want to interrupt the other narrative - the negative one, the one that says I am always on the verge of failure. I've been practicing to linger on the good stuff, and let the critical mind-chatter roll away. Lately I've noticed he tells me I'm beautiful more frequently.
"Am I imagining it?" I asked him.
"No," he smiled. "You're not. It used to trigger you when I said so. You'd resist it. Now you seem to take it in."
Trigger. Nearly thirty years ago I was riding in the car with my mom through our neighborhood, when we paused at an intersection.
"Mom, do you think I'm pretty?" I asked. I was perhaps ten or eleven.
It was a hard question to ask. At its root, the question is really, Am I likable? Am I worthy? Am I enough for the life that I want? Will life be good to me? Will it open to me, revealing treasures like love and appreciation and comfort? So much hinged on her answer to my simple question. I'm sure every kid wonders this kind of thing.
"Your mother is so beautiful," teachers and sales clerks said to me all the time. It was true. She was in the prime of her beauty just as I was beginning to wonder about my own. She was 5'8" and wore 3" heels. Her eye shadow was purple, her lipstick red, and she got her nails manicured every two weeks by Violet who had two daughters in my school. The answer should have been fast and easy. Yes, you are pretty, she should have said.
"Ana is pretty," she began. Ana was Violet's daughter, and indeed one of the prettiest girls in my grade. "So is Risa," she said, mentioning another girl I was close with. "You?" She paused. "I would say you are more striking.
I didn't know what that meant. I still don't. That day in the car, though, I was fairly certain of one thing: striking wasn't pretty. And if I wasn't pretty, could I still be likable, worthy, and all the rest? It felt like my life hinged on this one question.
I can imagine now how this conversation might seem from her standpoint. In all the years she was told she was beautiful, my mother was also a voracious reader. She was a baby boomer dissident. She was a latent academic who, despite dropping out of high school has now earned her PhD. She got married young, had me soon after, and offset her career aspirations. I was a bright kid with my life still ahead of me. There would be limitless career options looming after college. Perhaps she thought striking
was a greater compliment than the commonplace pretty
. Perhaps she thought it would keep me safe from making the choices she made. Maybe it was a feminist decision.
As that scene in the car passed through my mind, I knew what Darby was talking about. Trigger. It used to be, when he'd say "You're beautiful", I would brush it off. I didn't know what to do with it. I'd laugh or shrug or make some self-disparaging remark. I couldn't decide if he was saying it out of obligation, or if he really thought I was. Of course now I see how ridiculous that is. After all, the man and I fell head over heels in love. To me, his is the most beautiful face on the planet. I imagine he feels the same about me. But he would tell me I am beautiful and it would stump me every time.
When we live under the spell of not-good-enough, we don its cloak. We hope it's invisible to others, but when someone truly loves us, they see all the layers, and they know that beneath the stories is the true self. They see youth and wrinkles, and the beauty of time. They see our successes and our struggles. 2009 was a good year. 2008 not so much
. They see how far we've come, and what it took to get here. They know the tattered edges of not-good-enough, and do what they can to fray it more.
That Saturday I looked at Darby sitting across from me. I didn't know it until the other night, but he has been stealthily tugging at the holes of my cloak. It's a strange thing to realize that sometimes the best way to show love is to hold back. He's older than me by thirteen years. He knows better how to bide time. I'm learning.
At Vendome's on Sunday, as Miles Davis was replaced by Traffic, I let the 2009 wine roll over my tongue. I turned to Darby and said, "I just love being an adult." I was trying to say how much I appreciated everything about that moment, including all the years that came before. Shot through that, I also appreciated my ability to appreciate it. That's the best way I knew how to say it. This morning, as we were laying in bed listening to the morning awaken outside our bedroom door, I think he may have expressed it better."Do you think," he asked, "there's a month of Lovecember too?"